A SECOND WIND: Calhoun County Man Breathes New Life Into Old Windmills
Were they all gone with the wind? Bryant Nunnelly was beginning to think so.The windmills that had fascinated him as a child, towering tall and proud like giant sentinels high above Alabama farmscapes, had slowly but almost certainly vanished in a century of sunsets. Another casualty of progress. Another fading memory.But like a modern-day Don Quixote, Nunnelly rode on, tilting at windmills high and low across Alabama for 10 long years in search of just the right one to watch over his 60-acre farm in Calhoun County. “But it was always the same story — ‘That was granddaddy’s windmill. I’m not selling it,'” Nunnelly said. “Even the tower — ‘No, no, that was granddaddy’s. We’re not selling that!'”Nunnelly wasn’t surprised. While windmills continue to populate the West where they still pump water on large cattle ranches, Alabama’s windmills became obsolete almost before the ink dried on the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Very few actually work any more, says Jim Donald, an extension engineer with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University who co-authored an Extension pamphlet on harnessing wind power in 1970.”People would want to know if it was feasible to put in windmills to pump water,” Donald said, explaining the reason for writing the pamphlet. “I would say the answer to that is ‘yes.’ Back in the old days, absolutely! It was a different set of economic conditions than today. That was the least-cost alternative, and perhaps, the only way to pump water. But nowadays, there’s electricity almost everywhere. … I mean to think about building a 40-foot structure when you could just unroll electrical wire and bury it in the ground and be done with it…it just doesn’t make sense.”Maybe not, but the memories that Alabama windmills left behind — of dog-trot houses and dirt yards or great grandma’s pot belly stove and great grandpa’s corn crib — are as powerful a force today as the wind that once turned the blades.It was that emotional link that drove Nunnelly onward and westward in his search before finally finding his answer blowing in the wind. “People out West think no more of a windmill than we think of a lawnmower,” he said, adding that many ranches there still use them to pump water for their cattle. “For them, it was a tool and nothing more.”That gave Nunnelly an idea. Finally answering a farm bulletin ad from a Kansas man who wanted to sell a windmill, Nunnelly set off on a scouting and buying trip through the Midwest and West. “I figured that if I wanted one for my farm for all those years and couldn’t find one, I couldn’t be the only person who wanted one,” he said. “So I just took a gamble and bought four or five windmills, just trying to pay the freight for getting it here. And I sold those first windmills in a week and saw that maybe here was a side business, a retirement opportunity.”That was 300 windmills ago. His hobby soon became Southern Breeze Windmills & Supply, a part-time business that he runs out of his Ohatchee home.His windmill now spins high above his 60-acre farm where the only crops are rusting iron and metal scraps of old windmills. Most are strewn about in briar thickets and clumps of weeds, but some rest under an old shed awaiting their chance to again blow in the breeze. “This is where windmills come to be resurrected,” he said as he looked over what was once a garage but is now filled with literally thousands of windmill parts.He’s now brought almost 200 back to life, erecting them in seven states — usually at a charge of $2,900 for a reconditioned, working mill. Of course, that doesn’t include installation, which’ll run you about $1,500 more. “Probably about 50 percent purchase a windmill totally for nostalgia. If it never pumps a gallon of water, it doesn’t matter to them,” said Nunnelly. “About 45 percent want to justify the purchase of a windmill with it actually doing something. Then, about 5 percent, down in the panhandle of Florida, are actually put in as a water source for cattle.” “Beaver” Tinsley of Talladega County wanted his windmill and memories, too.”At first, I wasn’t going to pump water. I just wanted it for looks,” Tinsley said of the windmill Nunnelly brought from Kansas and set up behind a 1930s-era general store Tinsley is building next to his house. “Then, this guy who worked with me said, ‘Beaver, the first thing that everyone is going to ask you is, ‘Does it work? Does it pump water?’ And I got to thinking — we’re not going that route anymore.'”Deciding he could use the windmill to pump water for his small cow-calf operation, Tinsley turned to the Talladega Soil & Water Conservation District — and landed about 60 percent of the funds he would need. “It was about a year trying to get everything set up, get the well drilled and get it approved through the government,” said Tinsley. “They had never done anything like that around here. So the board got together and sent several people down here to check me out. A guy says, ‘Are you serious?’ And I told them ‘If you don’t approve it, I’m going to do it anyway.’ I was ready to drill my own well and pay for it.”Along the way to growing his windmill business, Nunnelly also became known as one of the nation’s foremost windmill experts. In fact, it was Nunnelly who the National Park Service called in 1999 when it began searching for someone to restore a windmill that had once stood on former President Jimmy Carter’s home site in Plains, Ga.All that was left of the mill was a faded photograph from a family scrapbook. Carter, relying on his childhood memory, contended that the windmill was an old Aermotor model that his dad bought from Sears & Roebuck.”Well, Aermotor never contracted to Sears,” said Nunnelly. “They contracted to many companies, but Sears was not one of them. So he was totally wrong about that. But for me to contradict President Carter, I had to document the proof. You had to be in-depth because when President Carter gets his mind made up, he can be hard-headed.”Eventually, Nunnelly proved his case, identifying the old Carter family windmill as a Challenger Suburban Model 27, made in Batavia, Ill. Finding parts proved a challenge in itself — some he found in North Dakota, others in west Texas. “We found enough of it to get the motor, the fans and all that stuff back to 100 percent original,” Nunnelly says proudly.Work on the Carter farm restoration got Nunnelly thinking, too, about the memories we leave behind every time another windmill bites the dust. “Alabama is lagging,” he said. “We’re not doing any major efforts to preserve our agriculture history. It’s important. We’re raising children who don’t know where an egg comes from, don’t know where milk comes from. We need to show the children that we did plow with horses, and we did saw trees down by hand and before electricity, we did pump water before with everything from wells to pump jacks to windmills.” _____________________________________________________
For more information, contact Southern Breeze Windmill & Supply at 1-800-598-8322 or (256) 892-1073.